When considering local housing targets, it’s important to remember that Hertfordshire is already one of the two most densely-populated shire counties in England.
Given this, it is no surprise that the Government’s targets of up to 93,200 more houses by 2021 have caused the gravest of concern.
For the targets would mean more than 200,000 extra people, an increase of 20% in just 15 years. It is unprecedented in scale, and completely out of step with local need.
Now, Ministers like to claim that people in Hertfordshire - and we, as their representatives - oppose all new houses, that we are NIMBYs. This is, of course, complete nonsense and is, frankly, disingenuous.
We recognise the need for more homes, and have consistently ensured the building of more homes to accommodate need.
Indeed over the last 20 years East Herts District Council has enabled more homes to be built than any other neighbouring local authority. For example, since 2001 some 2,140 houses have been built in my district, unlike Harlow where just 810 were constructed. So we’ll take no lectures from Ministers on this.
But we believe that development must be sustainable, it must underpinned by funded infrastructure, and it must be planned democratically. Sadly, the Proposed Changes to the Panel’s recommendations made by the Secretary of State to the Plan fail on all three counts.
Take sustainability. Clearly a key objective would be to ensure that housing and employment targets equate. Yet the Secretary of State wants housing for over 17000 more people than there will be jobs.
Take the vital issue of water and sewerage treatment. The expert Panel made it clear that local development in our area must be delayed because of serious capacity problems.
Yet the Minister has ignored this simply saying that the problems can be ‘overcome with time’. No attempt to address existing water problems; no attempt to realise the fundamental obstacle this issue will have for any new development, never mind her higher targets.
Or take Harlow North. The Secretary of State is now proposing that this speculative development proceed, and that instead of the original 10,000 houses, this site (of some 3,000 acres of green fields) could include over 20,000 houses. Given this scheme has been rejected twice before, and was removed completely by her own Panel, why does she now believe Harlow North should proceed?
Or take infrastructure. When presented with the initial list of key projects – including improvements to road and public transport, and water and sewerage capacity - the Chancellor refused to fund over 75% of the schemes.
In other words, the Government wants houses for 200,000 people in Herts, but is only prepared to pay for 50,000.
And that’s just the most basic of capital projects.
Our public services – like schools and hospitals are being squeezed, not improved.
If the substance of the Government’s housing plans is bad, the way they’ve been imposed is even worse. It has been a combination of incompetence and political chicanery.
And so today I would like to focus on how the Plan, and so the Housing targets for Hertfordshire, have been set.
First of all, the consultation process was fundamentally flawed. For example, EERA failed to print and distribute sufficient copies of the plan, on which they were supposedly consulting.
The result was that, for example, in Bishop’s Stortford, a town of some 35,000 people, just two copies of the plan were available to the town’s Library. It was the same story in Hertford and Ware.
How on earth were the public meant to read this 300 page document and respond when thousands of people had just a couple of copies to share?
Then, the Regional Assembly withdrew its support for the Plan, after Ministerial promises to fund the infrastructure, were not forthcoming. Yet the Government has pressed ahead. The result is the legal nonsense of a Plan which isn’t supported by the body responsible for producing it.
But perhaps the worst example of the shoddy way in which this plan has been railroaded through, has been the episode of the Housing Minister and Harlow North.
When the Government-appointed Panel of inspectors considered the Plan last year, they recognised all the problems of this speculative scheme and strongly recommended on June 19th 2006 that the new town should expressly not be included in the regional plan.
Some people disagreed. Indeed the member for Harlow said it was ‘unfair’ and he wanted to ‘put an alternative to Government’.
Of course, as my colleagues here know, the Government’s own planning rules preclude that.
Planning Policy Statement 11 states that in the period between the Panel’s report to Government, and the publication of the Government’s response, any representations would “undermine the whole examination process and be prejudicial to other participants.”
Thus, until the Government published its changes, Ministers should receive no representations. And fair enough.
Regrettably, the Housing Minister apparently breached that rule. On July 13th 2006 she met with the member for Harlow, to specifically discuss housing.
And in December, the Government overturned its own inspectors’ recommendations and specifically reinstated the new town.
I have raised this issue in this House on several occasions. All the way through the Government has defended itself by saying that the junior Minister is responsible for making the decisions, not the Housing Minister.
But this defence was meant to distract me from two crucial points.
First of all, the rules don’t refer to who makes the decision. The rules say that no representations should be received by Government. Clearly the Housing & Planning Minister meeting a local MP to discuss housing, between the Panel’s decision and the Secretary of State’s announcement, IS a representation.
And the fact that the Minister won’t publish her papers from that meeting - on the grounds that she was ‘engaged in making policy’ - only confirms the pertinence of the meeting.
But the second point shows up Ministers in an even worse light.
The junior Minister says that she is responsible for the East of England plan. Indeed she is. Now.
But was she the responsible Minister last July when that crucial meeting took place?
To find out, I tabled named-day questions for answering on March 3rd. Three weeks later, silence from the Department. So with the help of the Leader of the House, on the day we rose before Easter, I finally forced an answer from the Department.
The Junior Minister was put in charge of the East of England Plan in October - 3 months AFTER the Housing Minister discussed housing with the member for Harlow. No wonder they didn't want to answer my questions.
The housing targets set out in this Plan are of great concern to my constituents.
They firmly believe that that meeting last July breached PPS11 and in doing so it undermined the examination process. This prejudicial action, along with the failure to consult adequately and the resulting decision to designate a specific development are all grounds for saying that this Plan – and the housing targets it includes - is fundamentally flawed.
If people now challenge the plan, it will be because they wish to see due process, open and transparent governance and housing targets that are both sustainable and deliverable.
On all these counts, this Government – and especially this group of Ministers- have failed and I believe they should be held to account.